Yesterday John referred to Mitt Romney as a candidate who "threatens . . . the left [and] also threatens the extreme right . . . ." I think that's true, and I have been wondering myself why. I've settled on one aspect of this blog’s subject that has always fascinated me: Fear of Mormons.
Such fear may have something to do with the “increasingly shrill and vitriolic rhetoric” to which John refers—from both sides of the political spectrum. I think many on both Left and Right fear Mormonism, for different reasons. Why? John and I both think that question opens an important topic for discussion.
In my ponderings, I have been asking myself, "If I were not a Mormon myself, what about my faith would worry or disturb me?" The following is the short list I have come up with so far:
1. General unfamiliarity with the LDS faith and its culture. There are many more members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the "Church") than Episcopalians, but we Mormons just haven't been around, or been numerous, for very long at all. True, there are 12 million of us worldwide, about 6 million in the USA. But perhaps only half of those members actually practice the religion actively. (As in all faiths, there are varying degrees of religious activity among Mormons.)
Compounding that problem is Mormonism's historical regional concentration in Utah, Idaho, and parts of Nevada and Arizona. Having fled to, and gathered in, the American Mountain West, we didn't mix much with others in the early days. Now, however, only about 15% of the Church's members live in Utah. Even so, I often find that I am one of only two or three Mormons that my colleagues and other acquaintances have ever known. Anecdotal evidence, I know; but I think that's a common experience for Mormons outside Utah.
Upshot: People tend to fear what they don't know. Americans hear that Mitt Romney's a Mormon, and they're not sure what that means. Or they think of the two or three Mormons they've ever known and assume those people represent the entire Church. Or maybe they think of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or Ted Bundy (who was briefly a Mormon), or Steve Young. People hear a candidate is Mormon, and they wonder what that means. People hear a candidate is Catholic, and they yawn.
2. The existence of many myths about Mormons. Some examples here. (Not an official LDS site.) None of these are true, but they've persisted for years. Would you want as your president a member of a racist church that practices polygamy and does not believe in Christ? Neither would I.
3. Misunderstood Mormon history. One blogger to whom we linked in yesterday's reading list wrote:
At the time of his murder, Joseph Smith was running for president and had control of Mormon militia, which has been called largest armed force (public or private) west of the Mississippi.
And that's mostly true, except that Joseph Smith was never a serious presidential candidate; he ran to attract attention to the anti-Mormon persecution of the time and the federal government's well-documented refusal to hep the Mormons. As for the militia, the Mormons didn’t have one until they were driven out of Missouri, a traumatic experience indeed. The Governor of Missouri signed the infamous “Extermination Order,” authorizing the shooting on sight of Mormons who were not out of the state by a certain date. The militia was entirely defensive.
The Church has come a long way from those early days. But the myths persist. Some of those myths breed fear.
4. Rapid growth. 30 years ago there were 2.3 million LDS members in the USA; now there are 6 million, with another 6 million outside the USA. The work of non-Mormon sociologist Rodney Stark, now at Baylor University, probably worries many observers:
Examining [Mormonism's] growing appeal . . . Stark concluded that Mormons could number 267 million members by 2080. In what would become known as "the Stark argument," Stark suggested that the Mormon Church offered contemporary sociologists and historians of religion an opportunity to observe a rare event: the birth of a new world religion.
I personally think Stark’s growth projections are overly optimistic, but throwing out figures like those gets people’s attention. If I were a pastor or committed, educated member of another faith, and were convinced of Mormonism's outright error, I would be disturbed on at least two levels:
- If I were a creedal Evangelical Christian, I might be sincerely worried about all those millions of people risking eternal damnation after being deceived by a false religion. (That comment may seem flippant; it's not intended to be.)
- On a more subliminal level, as someone who's committed a great deal of my life to another faith — especially if I am a pastor whose livelihood depends on a strong flock willing to support me– watching the success of "the competitition" might alarm me greatly.
I might also worry that electing a Mormon president would only fuel the Church's growth by legitimizing and "mainstreaming" it. Al Mohler openly admits to that very concern, and says the decision to vote for a Mormon for president would be "excruciating" for him.
Simply as a liberal, if I were one, I might look at Stark's projections and worry about the Mormons taking over the country, dominating or heavily influencing state legislatures everywhere, and imposing strict liquor laws throughout the nation. I'm not sure what to say about that worry, except to call it far-fetched and generally lacking faith in American institutions.
5. A high level of organization. This worry tends to be limited to those who know a fair amount about the Church. Unlike Evangelical congregations, the LDS Church is tightly integrated, highly organized, and completely heirarchical. It also has extensive financial resources. By all outward appearances, if the Church leadership wanted to, it could send an army of Mormons out to work for any good cause– political or otherwise. During Katrina, for example, thousands of Mormons spread out across the stricken area to rebuild and repair, to clean up and deliver supplies.
Those resources have never been used for anything other than a humanitarian cause, and there's no reason to think that would change; but the resources—human and material– still scare some people.
6. An aggressive missionary effort. We have over 60,000 full-time missionaries throughout the world now, mostly young men and women, and they’re working with current members all the time to find new converts. The stated mission of the Church is to invite all to come to Christ, and "preaching the gospel" is a major part of that effort.
Concerns 1-3 above — unfamiliarity, myths, and misunderstood history– dissipate with education about, and social contact with, Mormons. Romney will get past them as people become more aware of what Mormons are all about.
Concerns 4-6, however– growth, organization, and missionary effort– are probably not as easy to dismiss. Mormons as a group are highly organized, well-disciplined, and are vigorous proselyters, and always have been.
I need help from Evangelicals and other creedal Christians to answer these questions. I think John will be weighing in too, but for now I'll turn to John Mark Reynolds on the question of "mainstreaming" Mormonism by electing a Mormon president:
I think this argument breaks down for three reasons, First, it assumes that Mormonism is not already a “normal” part of American politics. Mormons are already major players in at least three states (Utah, Idaho, and Arizona) and highly influential in Republican politics in general. Evangelicals need to “get over” their wish that Mormonism would vanish or is a small group that can safely be dismissed with the label “cult.” Instead, we should begin treating Mormonism as a large, respectable, and powerful competitor in the marketplace of ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, I am no fan of Mormon doctrine, but then I work with pro-life Catholics while having very definite feelings about the Pope’s claim to be the universal head of the Church. Mormons never sacked Constantinople, the mother city of my church, like the Pope’s army did, but I manage to overcome serious historical and theological differences and join ranks with my Catholic pro-life comrades.
While we strongly disagree with Mormons and other religious groups (such as Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism), traditional Christians are wise enough to make common cause with them when we can. In the culture of free inquiry which traditional Christianity embraces, there is nothing dangerous about letting people get to know (or see us working with) people with whom we have serious disagreements, since we are confident in our theological arguments. I encourage my students to read the Book of Mormon and examine its claims seriously before engaging in any dialogue with Mormons. Knowledge, not the prejudice that is the result of ignorance, is our guiding light as traditional Christians.
If we could vote for Reagan, whose doctrinal notions were at best fuzzy, then my guess is that we can stomach Romney (whose theology is at least coherent). I don’t think my vote for my political hero Reagan converted throngs to Nancy’s well known use of astrology.
Fear of Mormons is understandable and, in fact, to be expected, given the nature of the Church. What will be interesting to watch over the next 23 months is whether those fears will be dispelled by reason, as Dr. Reynolds urges; or as Hugh Hewitt's soon-to-be-published book will urge. Here on this blog, of course, we'll do our best to push the discussion in the direction of reason and away from fear.
John adds (briefly): I agree, there is much fear of Mormonism in the country and most of it is unfounded. Having said that; however, I am more reflective of how little we know about what most candidates believe or think, even though their particular faith may be more mainstream. Consider the overused Kennedy example – How many Protestants understand the difference in Catholicism and Protestantism? They are quite different, but I think most people don't care because there really is something called a "civil religion" of which Catholicism is a recognized adherent.
Mormonism's problems relate largely to the fact of its historical lack of adherance to that civil religion, namely its polygamous past. I think it would be a mistake to try and solve all the problems Lowell has outlined here. I think the message should be a simple one, direct one. "Mormons have grown up…" (perhaps in deference to me friend Lowell there is a less perjorative way to phrase that but you get the idea) "…and we are pretty much like you, at least when it comes to that civil religion."
By the way, religions that get competitive with one another, get lost in my opinion. Religion is about truth; truth cannot compete with other truth, it is either true or not. When it comes to the political arena, the truth of differing religions is unimportant.
Lowell: The civil religion comment is excellent.
[tags] Mitt Romney, John Mark Reynolds, Hugh Hewitt, fear of Mormons, Mormonism, Al Mohler, Joseph Smith, Rodney Stark [/tags]